Muhammed Ali was magical, riveting, hard to ignore.I read George Vecsey’s piece in the Times this morning and it made me cry. I wanted to call this post Goodnight, Sweet prince; but then I thought people would think I was writing about Prince.
Prince was a wonderful and influential artist, but I did not have that kind of emotional connection to him that I have with Muhammad Ali. I did not cry when I heard of Prince’s death (nor David Bowie’s for that matter) but there was a flutter in my heart the second I heard the Greatest had passed.
I guess it has to do with age; he was a man I grew up with, a man that figured in my young life however tangentially. He was a hero to me when I was a kid, and became even more of a hero as he battled Parkinson’s disease with such dignity.
When I was a child there was still regular boxing on TV, and my dad was a big fan. My dad claimed he’d been a boxer when he was young in Mexico, and I have to take him at his word. I spent many a Saturday afternoon watching boxing on TV with him, as he explained the finer points of pugilism. It was one of the last things we shared for a long time. My dad always talked about Ali, calling him “El Ali. El campion.” The Champ.
I wasn’t crazy about boxing, especially when one day when I was 13 my father came home with two pair of red Everlast boxing gloves in a brown paper bag. He called me and my younger brother into the living room.
“I’m gonna teach you boys how to defend yourselves,” he declared. My 8-year old fifty-plus pound little brother was excited, he was a lot more physical than I ever was. After we donned the gloves and our dad showed us a few basic moves he sat down on the couch in his underwear and sipped his whiskey as he directed us to “box.”
It was easy, I being taller and having a longer reach I could hold my little brother at arm’s length while he flailed away at the air between us.
Occasionally I would deliver a light tap to the side of his head or let him hit my arms or stomach, but I never took it very seriously. I would laugh at his frustration and taunt him.
One day very shortly after the gloves arrived we were doing our requisite sparring for Papa, I pushing little Luis away and he flailing when he caught me off guard. He was very, very angry, I knew by how hard he was hitting, he was serious about it. And in one quick second he swung up at my face, put his whole body into it, his fifty-something pounds behind that punch that caught me square in the mouth.
“Yes!” My dad chortled.
“That’s it son, that’s the way to do it!”
Stunned, I staggered backwards, but at least didn’t fall down. I was too stunned to be angry and hit him back, but I never forgot about it. I don’t think I ever put those gloves back on.
That was in 1968.
Those were the years Ali was not fighting, due to his suspension from boxing and the loss of his title because of his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.
He was larger than life, and for a kid growing up in predominantly black housing projects in Brooklyn he was part of everyday life. Everybody followed what Ali did in the newspapers and on the evening news.
I was never enamored of the Black Muslims and the Nation of Islam, I remember getting free copies of Muhammad Speaks and seeing the cartoons of the white people with devil’s tails and the whole thing was just full of hatred. And to me that wasn’t the Champ.
He did later break with The Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim in 1975, following Malcolm X’s lead.
I always found him a magnetic, beautiful man, and never tired of seeing him on TV either putting down an opponent, criticizing the government, or horsing around with Howard Cosell. He always warmed my heart. I never watched any of his fights, save for clips I saw on the news or the fleeting documentary. But I still loved him.
I loved him even more when I saw the quiet dignity he displayed after being diagnosed with Parkinson’s and hearing about what he was doing to help others with the disease. To me he was an example of what a real man should be.
So when I read Mr. Vecsey’s article today I did cry, especially when he called Ali America’s broken Prince. So yes, “Good-night sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.” I will miss you.
All photos were downloaded from the internet.